‘The source for the painting of Brigitte Bardot, 1963... was the logo on the request for entries for the 1963 Young Contemporaries exhibition – a black and white photograph of Brigitte Bardot on which a black circle had been superimposed. I quite cheekily painted this image and submitted it for the exhibition, and it was duly selected. Now, with the passage of time, my image has eclipsed its long-forgotten source’ (G. Laing, Kinkell Castle, Scotland 2006, www.geraldlaing.com [accessed 9 December 2013]).
Captivating in its sheer size and direct presentation, Gerald Laing’s Brigitte Bardot is a quintessential pop image of the international screen siren of the Swinging Sixties. A key pioneer of Pop art in Britain, Laing’s Brigitte Bardot captures the heady glamour of the 1960s. Brigitte Bardot is also exceptional for its place in Laing’s oeuvre: the work is one of the first the artist created using his innovative style which replicated by hand machine-made printing techniques, arguably before Roy Lichtenstein’s wholesale appropriation of the ‘Ben Day’ graphic process, and Sigmar Polke’s later ‘dot paintings’ or Rasterbilder. The stylistic revolution captured in Laing’s Brigitte Bardot was presented at the ground-breaking Young Contemporaries exhibition in early 1963, the same show whose ad had inspired its creation. In the same collection for over fifty years, it was at this renowned show in 1963 that the current collector acquired Brigitte Bardot. A trailblazer in the new Pop movement centred in London, Laing explained of the inception of the work, ‘the source for the painting of Brigitte Bardot, 1963... was the logo on the request for entries for the 1963 Young Contemporaries exhibition – a black and white photograph of Brigitte Bardot on which a black circle had been superimposed. I quite cheekily painted this image and submitted it for the exhibition, and it was duly selected. Now, with the passage of time, my image has eclipsed its long-forgotten source’ (G. Laing, Kinkell Castle, Scotland 2006, www.geraldlaing.com [accessed 9 December 2013]). Bardot’s sideways glance as captured in the original photograph, along with Laing’s mass-media printing style gives the inference that this image is a paparazzo shot, a product of the new openness about sex and celebrity experienced during this time. Laing reinforces this quality by retaining the focus circle of a photographic lens from his source image. The intense, highly concentrated composition produces a simultaneously formal rendering of a glamorously aloof star that both recalls and refutes connotations of film posters.
Alongside his Brigitte Bardot, Laing exhibited an array of other French nouvelle vague film actresses including Cleo de 5 à 7 at the Young Contemporaries show. ‘I chose photographs which appealed to me,’ Laing espoused, ‘ones which I wished to make more permanent than the essentially ephemeral nature of the daily press would allow, and which were also absolutely of the moment’ (G. Laing, quoted in M. Livingstone, British Pop, exh. cat., Bilbao, Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao, 2006, p. 435). Like his American counterpart Andy Warhol who also silk-screened sex symbols Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor, and eventually Bardot herself in the 1970s, Laing’s independent exploration of the elevation and iconoclasm of sex and celebrity into the realm of high art was a theme which would go on to become integral to the Pop movement in America, thereby anointing him a pioneer of the international Pop art movement. As Laing noted of this ad cum art turnabout, ‘The temerity of taking the advertisement for the exhibition and turning it into a part of the content – a complete reversal of the usual sequence of events – seemed absolutely appropriate; the blurring of the contrast between advertising and art, and the cupidity of the enterprise had a perfect and inevitable symmetry’ (G. Laing, quoted in P. Vaughan, unpublished extracts from G. Laing, Autobiographical Account of Our Times, Kinkell Castle, Scotland, 2011, unpaged). As a testament to its impact on the British Pop scene at the time, Brigitte Bardot was also included in the seminal Painting from Photographs / Photographs from Paintings, held at St. Martin’s in March 1963.
Tapping into the global zeitgeist that was propagating celebrity images of icons like Bardot on daily basis, Laing conceived a painterly style inspired by the mass-media and paparazzi culture. In his Brigitte Bardot, Laing mimicked and enlarged the screened dot systems of half-tone photo-press images found in newspapers and magazines in an oil-paint format. Laing simultaneously simplified the printer’s colour palette to black and white while varying the topography of the image through his dot grids or screens. Using primary sources for his paintings that were small, grainy, black-andwhite photographs culled from newspapers, Laing worked these disposable images up to larger scales, thereby enabling his work to balance between the handmade and the machine-made.
While this technique shared some visual affinities with Polke’s hand-painted rasterbilder which sought to magnify and abstract media images made through the raster paintings, Laing’s art comes from a place that is more celebratory of Pop culture and, by extension, American culture. Laing notes that one of the first works he made in this style ‘was an image of Brigitte Bardot with a circle superimposed on her features... It was a systematic and pseudoscientific method of constructing a human image which disintegrated into its separate dots on close examination, and coagulated to become legible when seen from a distance. There was no accident of brushwork and no illusory atmospheric space. In that particularly it can be seen as a reaction against the vague and speculative content of Abstract Expressionist paintings’ (G. Laing, quoted in M. Livingstone, British Pop, exh. cat., Bilbao, Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao, 2006, p. 435). In this way, Laing was adopting and manipulating media imagery in a way that was more in keeping with a visual strategy that would be taken up by American Pop artists, rather than Polke’s subversion or critique of the artifice used by the mass-media for propaganda.
Laing entered St. Martin’s in the autumn of 1960 where he was taught by Richard Smith in the Painting School, who after a recent trip to New York in 1962 was exploring advertising, mass-media imagery and cinema in his ICA lectures and film screenings. Laing had exhibited a profound interest in the popular imagery more commonly associated with the American Dream rather than any contemporary British aspirations. ‘I began to look for systematic approaches to the task and found them in the new commercial images which were appearing around us in increasing numbers as the economy began to thrive’ Laing explains of the time. ‘So strong were these to our eyes, accustomed as they were only to the peeling stucco of wartime neglect, that they seemed to eclipse reality and acquired the pungent authority of the icon. Standing on the tube platform on my way to St. Martin’s in the mornings, I was transfixed by the crude but powerful printing processes used in poster advertisements, and the ambivalence between the whole image which they contained and the means by which it had been created – the dots and lines and cacophony of form and colour visible at a short range, and the reassuring integrity of the image at a distance’ (G. Laing, quoted in M. Livingstone, British Pop, exh. cat., Bilbao, Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao, 2006, p. 435). It was at this moment that Laing pioneered a representational language that engaged more directly with the content of the mass media. Only after the conception of this new grid format and the celebration of Pop imagery found in his Brigitte Bardot executed earlier that year, did Laing go to New York and meet and become aware of the art by the American Pop artists who were working in this same tradition. Indeed Laing was so entranced by this trip that he moved to New York after graduating in 1963 where his work was well received, garnering him his first commercial exhibition at the Feigen Gallery in 1964 before his work was ever shown this way in England.